May - June 2018 @ JANET CLAYTON GALLERY, Paddington, Sydney
shibboleth:R (2017-18) , oil and tempera on linen, 100x200cm
This body of work is inspired by my immediate natural surroundings in the small rural village in which I live. My daily walks are framed by fields of feral grasses and weeds stretching from one side where the trees edge the river bank, to the other side, reaching the slopes of the ranges. In some seasons, the dew on the tall weeping stalks will glitter in the rising sun, while the setting evening sun will catch the tips of motionless grasses turning the fields bronze. At other times the grasses are short, either frost bitten or drought thirsty. But whether towering or low, the grasses always support a plethora of living creatures. At best we call this multiplicity of flora cattle feed, but usually they are simply annoying weeds.
At first, in my fenced property, weeds were not welcomed. I had attempted to control their invasion only to be kept at bay by the realization of the arbitrary nature of the definition ’weed’. I intended to replace unwanted ‘ugly’ vegetation with an assortment of what I had considered beautiful and desirable plants. Definitions mark the ‘bad’ from the ‘good’, the ‘useful’ from the ‘obnoxious’. Nature itself does not have any such intrinsic attributes. Every thought we formulate, every value we attribute, every adjective we articulate in regard to the natural environment is our projection, our cultural constructions.
A fence marks the boundaries of my land. Unlike most fences it does not keep animals in or out of the property, and neither does it controls weeds. Across the country, unfenced sprawling fields of ‘weeds’ are a rarity. Even the vast arid plains of central Australia are fenced and controlled. There is also a long fence to keep dingos in or out (depending on which side of the fence you are). And there are also patrolled invisible fences marking the boundaries between different colour, race and beliefs of people who inhabit the land.
The term "shibboleth", the title I gave to one of the series of paintings in the exhibition, is taken from my native language Hebrew, and it means ‘ear of grain’. For me, in addition to personal memories of singing odes to the harvest of the land, and of glorious images of golden fields of wheat swaying in the breeze, the term evokes the Biblical myth of a massacre of members of one tribe by their brothers - the legend tells that after their defeat by the Gileadites, the Ephraimites tried to escape across the Jordan River. Stationed next to the banks of the river, the Gileadites would ask each person attempting to cross to say the word ‘shibboleth’. The Ephraimites, who were unable to enunciate ‘sh’ sounds, would say ‘sibboleth’, and thus revealing their identity. The Gileadites slaughtered 42,000 members of the Ephraim tribe.
Historically, the word was used as a pronunciation test to identify the ‘other’. These days the word has a wide range of common meanings and is used differently in several disciplines, including semiotics, linguistic and philosophy. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary ‘shibboleth’ is: 1) an old idea, opinion, or saying that is commonly believed and repeated but that may be seen as old-fashioned or untrue; 2) a word or way of speaking or behaving which shows that a person belongs to a particular group. This body of work intends to draw attention to the arbitrariness of definitions, in particular when it comes to our treatment of the environment and its people, be it refugees on the other side of the world, or migrants and neighbours and their ‘otherness’ that disturbs our fenced equilibrium.
The presence of natural forces that may at any moment act upon any place, fenced or unfenced, is evidenced in each of the artworks. The depicted natural phenomena intend to evoke an unforgiving Nature, which is oblivious to us and our social and cultural constructions. The paintings are personal, remembered encounters in the landscape and an attempt to highlight the tension between human transiency and the resilience of the natural environment.